World’s Biggest Demo

Cook Off!

All right, I confess.  I love cooking shows.  I can’t resist them.  As I enjoy cooking myself, I find it inspiring to watch well trained and creative food gurus work their magic.  How exactly do they hold the knife?  In their estimation, how much is a “handful”?  What pots, pans, and kitchen gadgets do they use?  When the directions say, “simmer until reduced”, what does it look like exactly?

When I was at the gym yesterday, I saw that Rachael Ray (the host of a regularly scheduled television cooking show, for those of you who don’t know) was featuring the World’s Biggest Cooking Demo on her show, I couldn’t help but get sucked in.  Sure it was a corny tactic, but I have to say, it was pretty darned clever.  The producer’s plan was for Rachael to prepare a chicken dish outdoors, live, in front of her entire New York City studio audience, with each audience member positioned at a mobile cooking station, following along with her. Hundreds of little cooking stations were set up, equipped with a hotplate, pans, implements, and all the ingredients required for the dish.  It was quite the scene – all of those audience-member-chefs, lined up, following along with Rachael.

But that’s not all – hundreds more cooks kept up with the proceedings in live Los Angeles studio audience and even more followed along with the demo in their homes, watching it on television, and Skyping in their questions.  Occasionally, Rachael would take a break from the demo (while the sauce was simmering) to take a Skype call from a viewer in Cleveland or Tampa.  The caller was projected on the big screen, beamed in from his or her kitchen, working away at the same recipe, asking for a clarification or offering a suggestion.

I thought the whole thing was brilliant.  Who doesn’t like to feel a part of something larger than themselves?  So, why not leverage that and turn it into an event?  While watching the proceedings, another thing came clear to me –  there was infinite variation and adaptation at work.  As the camera scanned the 100′s of cooks putting the chicken dish together, you could see the color and consistency variation in the sauce; some toasted their corn muffins, some didn’t; and the Skype callers had all sorts of ideas for varying the recipe, improvising on the procedure, and making it their own.  Subliminally, we all got the message that there was no one right way to do – the recipe was a guideline and experimentation off the basic plan was endless.

By now I’ll bet you can tell where I’m going with this….how about a National Lab-Off?  Imagine thousands of high school students all over the U.S. doing a photosynthesis lab together on one promoted day of the academic year.  One master teacher leading the event, providing a game plan from which everyone could improvise, experiment, and collaborate.  Live video feed piped into classrooms all over the country. A producer to manage the video feeds and Skype calls with questions.  A post-event blogging session to pool data, interpret results, and discuss conclusions?  What a way to generate enthusiasm for investigation while at the same time encouraging the use of participatory media tools!  Man, if Rachael Ray can do it with honey mustard chicken, surely it could be done with a biology lab?

Written by rheyden in: Labs | Tags: ,


If you’re an educator, looking for a reason to get up to speed on Twitter, take a look at Edchat.  This is a live event that happens each Tuesday at  two times – 12pm EST/ 5pm GMT and 7pm EST/ 12pm GM - on Twitter.  Educators from all over the world chime in with their answers to a question, proposed by the organizers,  Stephen AndersonTom Whitby, andShelly Terrell.

Here is Shelly’s blog post, describing Edchat. Each week, the Edchat topic is voted on by the group.  You can send suggestions to Shelly, Tom or Stephen and then, on Monday of each week, they post five possible topics.  The topic with the most votes becomes the Edchat topic for that Tuesday.  Any Tweet that bears the hashtag - #edchat - will appear in the stream.  You can either search on the hashtag to pick up the stream, run it through an RSS feed, or if you’re using Tweetdeck(a sort of dashboard for Twitter), you can set up a column just for that steam.  Here’s a video tutorial on how to use Tweetdeck to monitor the stream.

If you have questions about how it works, you can get in touch with the moderators. For the 12pm EST #Edchat the moderators are @ShellTerrell and @Rliberni. For the 7pm EST Edchat the moderators are @MBTeach, @KylePace, and @TomWhitby.

People pose questions and answer them. They contribute suggestions, links, anecdotes, and arguments.  It’s a very lively bunch. In addition to the quality of the Tweets (mostly quite high), what struck me most was the power of the medium.  Here I was, in my own home, listening to 1000′s of smart, savvy educators – from all over the world – chime in on a conversation about a topic that interested me.  It’s the kind of experience you live for when you attend a national conference – that chance meet up in hallway or over a beer, where a group of interesting professionals gather for a few moments and exchange really helpful ideas about something important.  But this “meet up” was scheduled and it included 1000′s – and I didn’t have to get on a plane to listen in. A global brainstorming session, with (according to “what the trend“) 3500 contributions.

I was also struck by the courtesy of the group.  People responded to each other, supported concerns, and thanked each other for suggestions. No flamers here – what a welcome change.

Of course, it’s not perfect.  During the hour that I sat, scanning my Tweetdeck stream, I found myself getting irritated over the number of retweets (people forwarding on a Tweet they liked), resulting in bombardment with the same Tweet over and over again.  As you’d expect, there are a few spammers or advertisers that get in there (not too bad).  There are a few ridiculous comments that don’t bear mentioning.  But, on the whole, there’s some extremely good stuff.  I would say that, over the course of the hour, I learned a large handful of things I’d never heard before, laughed over a few very poignant stories, linked out to at least 50 different web sites (most of which were extremely useful), and choose 4 or 5 new people to follow in my regular Twitter stream.  There were teachers taking polls (trying to get a feel for opinions or patterns), teachers trolling for ideas (first day suggestions, how to use classroom blogs,

Fortunately, the organizers have developed a wiki site to accompany their Twitter live event.  There, you’ll not only find a directory of all the active Edchat participants (including their email addresses and interests) but a complete transcript of each Edchat session, listed by date. Here’s the transcript from this week’s Edchat session, ”Should teachers have students write blogs, develop class web sites/wikis, create student PLNs?”

To help with the retweeting problem, I turned to Paper.Li, which is a nifty online tool that turns a particular Twitter stream into an online newspaper, complete with categories and highlights.  You can read more about Paper.Li in this blogpost of mine, from a few weeks ago.  This was a great way to read the #Edchat stream because it eliminates the redundancies, promoting most mentioned items to headline status.  Great way to see all the videos together as well.  Here’s what this week’s Edchat looks like in Paper.Li:

The organizers have also started a Personal Learning Network (PLN), using Ning, for those educators who want to continue the conversation.  On the Ning site, I see that some educators have formed subgroups to start projects at their own schools or carry on a conversation about a related topic.  Nice. And here’s where I get to repeat a frequent (not-original) conclusion of mine – these participatory media tools are so much more powerful when they are used in combination with each other.  In this case…. Twitter, a Ning site, and a wiki.  Magic.


Thinking – at Wash U with the Life Sciences for a Global Community Teachers

“The Thinker” on the Washington University Campus

In the middle of one of the Washington University quads is this wonderfully whimsical re-imagining of August Rodin’sThe Thinker – a lanky looking rabbit, assuming the well-known, contemplative pose.  I just returned from a quick trip to St. Louis and, while there, the sculpture caught my fancy.  A nice flash of quirkiness on an otherwise, very traditional looking brick campus.

I traveled down there to join my friend and colleague, Liz Dorland, for a participatory media workshop for the Life Science for a Global Community (LSGC).  This is an amazing NSF-funded program, run out of Washington University byPhyllisBalcerzak, for high school life science teachers.  Teachers accepted into the program come to Wash U for a three-week, residential summer program for two summers running. Then, during the academic year, they take online courses and put what they learned in the summer into action in their own classrooms. During the 3-week summer program, they get top-notch mini courses from some of the best Wash U faculty on topics like neurobiology, photosynthesis, and genetics.  The teachers work together, as a cohort, to do experiments, go on field trips, start their own research projects and take what they learned back to their home campuses.  At the end of the two-year program, they’ve earned an MA in biology from Wash U, along with a community of like-minded colleagues that will last into the future of their teaching career.  They also stand a little taller – as a result of their expanded science knowledge, research expertise, and professional development.

Phyllis invited Liz and I to come work with the teachers on their use of new social media and web 2.0 tools – for the LSGC projects, for their students back at home, and with each other.  We had two sessions with them – Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.  On Friday afternoon we gave them an introduction to blogging (with WordPress), wikis (usingWikispaces), and podcasts (using cell phones, Flip video cameras, Garageband, and Audacity).  The workshops went well and the teachers caught on very quickly.  They came up with some pretty creative suggestions for using these tools with their students:

A multi-author blog to document a field trip

A science “newsreel” created by students – shown weekly to the school

Collaborate with students from another school – pool data

A wiki site for each course they teach, with a page for each student to hand in lab reports where the teacher could discuss the lab report on the discussion page and keep a record of the year

Students use video to record short tutorials on how to use various lab instruments (post them on a wiki site)

Student blogs used to reflect on their labs (or just reflect in general)

Create a podcast to narrate a field trip to a zoo or museum – turn it into a scavenger hunt

Students video interviews with experts (parents, other teachers, professors at local universities)

Use short podcasts as vehicles for reflection (as in, “before you leave the lab/test, just record a few minutes of your impressions/take-home lessons/what was the main point”)

Podcasts as assessments

Student-created podcast libraries of tough topics (use for future classes)

Wonderful stuff.  And, as always, when I meet with teachers, I was inspired by their persistence, endless creativity, and their overwhelming enthusiasm for their students.  Of course there were low moments too.  Like when I listened to them talk about their frustrations – school districts that blocked all the web sites they’d love to use with their students, administrators who seemed bent on foiling their every new plan, lack of resources, over-crowded classrooms (40 students in an AP course?!)…Sigh.  And one bleak moment when a teacher asked me, “but if we use all of these web sites, podcasts, and blogs, it just seems that the students will no longer need teachers and we’ll be putting ourselves out of a job.”  Oh, no.  Guess I didn’t do as good a job as I hoped I had at the beginning when I talked with them about all of these skills their students were going to need (that they don’t have now)….Like how to read in linked environments, how to validate information they find online, understanding the notion of a “digital footprint”, knowing how to work privacy settings on social networking sites, how to produce a safe and effective video, how to look for their teachers, how to behave in an online community, how to leverage a network effect.  Who is going to teach them all of those mission-critical skills if not their teachers?  That is our job – and we should be taking it very seriously.

On Saturday, we put together an (optional) Second Life workshop for them.  After a hard week of all-day sessions, we wereglad to welcome 10 of the 30 teachers who came to the session. They arrived, registered, got their avatar, and went in world for the first time.  In three hours, they went from never having been in a virtual world to flying, teleporting, managing their inventory, chatting, joining groups, and making friends.  It was wonderful to see.  Here are a few shots of our cadre of newbies exploring a really interactive museum on the American Chemical Society’s island (check out the simulation of nylon formation) and running through the foreston Tempura Island.  I suspect they were frustrated to learn that they couldn’t bring their (under 18 years old) high school students into this virtual world but the way that Liz approached this was to suggest SL as a professional development tool for them.  A place to experiment, to meet other like-minded teachers from all over the world, and – possibly – a place for them to meet and collaborate with each other, once they are no longer together on the Wash U campus.  We wound up our short SL romp with a fireworks display – everyone lighting sparklers on a platform, 300 feet up in the air over Jokaydia, with the sun dimmed for maximum effect.  It was quite a morning.

New LSGC avatars setting off fireworks in Second Life

NatureEd Podcast Series

Nature EdCast

Nature EdCast

I just came across a new podcast series from the folks at Nature Education (a new division of Nature Publishing group) called Nature EdCast.  This is a series of 10-minute podcast interviews with various scientists and educators – the interviews primarily focus on science teaching and learning – doing something new or thinking about science in unusual or different ways.  For example, there’s one with David Shenk on intelligence; one with Felice Frankel on visual communication; and one featuring Malcolm Campbell talking about Synthetic Biology. There are six interviews up on the site now, and, apparently, there will a a new one every month.

You can subscribe to the series (RSS feed), stream the podcasts right there on the site, or read the transcript. Definitely worth checking out.


Sue Mullican’s Biology Students

Alexis Miller's Human Homunculus

Alexis Miller's Human Homunculus

Through the wonderful world of the web, I’ve recently gotten to know an incredible high school biology teacher – Sue Mullican. Sue teaches at Jenks High School, in Jenks, Oklahoma. We first met at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) meeting, when she attended a workshop on using participatory media tools in teaching biology.  Since then, Sue and I have been corresponding, exchanging ideas, and sharing favorites sites and tools.

Sue was new to all of this but, true to her creative roots, she took to it immediately.  The first thing she did was to build a class wiki.  As you can see, she uses it to post biology in the news type stories, give assignments, feature student projects, and make announcements.

What really strikes me about Sue is that she’s completely internalized the idea of her students as “producers”.  She sees these new media tools as vehicles for her students’ to demonstrate their understanding in new ways.

Take for example this video, created by one of Sue’s physiology students, Alexis Miller.  The assignment was to build a human homunculus out of clay – one sensory area at a time.  For those of you not currently enrolled in Human Anatomy and Physiology, the word “homunculus” is Latin for “little human”.  In biology courses, it refers to a scale model of a human, distorted to represent the relative space occupied by human body parts on the somatosensory cortex (somatic sensory homunculus) and the motor cortex (motor homunculous).  In other words, on a sensory homunculus the tongue would be HUGE.  In the original assignment document, Sue suggests that the students take photos, each step along the way, as they build their clay homunculus, and showcase their photos or assemble them into a PowerPoint deck.  A clever assignment by any measure – but Alexis took it a step further and created this video. Gotta love Alexis. Gotta love Sue. Gotta love Jenks High School for being smart enough to hire a teacher like Sue, support her, and send her to national conferences.


Wisdom from the Niles High School District

Photo credit:  Tom Denham

Photo credit: Tom Denham

I just returned from moderating a teacher workshop at the Niles District’s (just out side of Chicago, Illinois) Institute Day.  Ruth Gleicher and Anne Roloff invited me to spend three hours with a group of 10 high school teachers from the two high schools in the Niles District.  The workshop was called, “Participatory Media, Learning, and Literacy” and it sprung from a session I offered at the 2009 NABT conference.  Ruth Gleicher, who is a biology teacher at Niles West HS, attended that NABT session and thought that it might be a good fit for her colleagues.  Together, she and I designed an experience with a little presentation and a lot of hands-on and discussion.

The session went well, I think.  I sure enjoyed it!  I was so impressed with this group of teachers.  They were biology, chemistry, earth science, english, and special ed teachers.  And they were all – to a person – hard working, creative, and very committed teachers.  We started off the session, going around and introducing ourselves.  I asked them to share with the others how they’re currently making use of new media tools with their students and to describe one new thing they wanted to try.  So we spent the first hour or so in a candid exchange of ideas, things that worked and didn’t, questions they had, and plans for the future.

I love these conversations. And I suspect that you do too – here are a few of the gems that the Niles teachers shared with each other….

Students aren’t as proficient as we think they are with online tools….they don’t know how to download a photo, they’ve never edited a wiki, they don’t understand intellectual property.

Amen to that.  And I would add that many of them don’t know how to set the privacy controls on Facebook, they don’t know how to create and post a video in a safe and responsible way, they are unaware of their digital footprint and how it might work to their benefit, and they forget about replicability, forwarding and the persistence of content.  Our students need help with all of these things.  They must become more aware of the power of online information and they must be more exacting judges of the credibility of what they find there.  They need teachers to help them understand, respect, sort and discern.

As teachers, we need help sorting out what’s the right tool for the job and which – if any -  of the options is worth our time.

Another good point!  There are so many intriguing online options these days – fun tools to try, capabilities to explore, and a huge range of ways to express ourselves, demonstrate our understanding, and deepen our experience.  But how to evaluate them?  How to decide if the time it will take to learn how to use them well (and then show others how to do the same) will be worth it?  With this conundrum, my advice is  – try it yourself first.  Get inside whatever the new thing is with your own projects or interests (a hobby?  a small thing – just enough to learn, or maybe on something you need to do anyway).  Make failure cheap.  Discover the affordances of the tool for yourself and then you’ll be in a good position to judge whether or not it’s worth using it in your classroom.

What I don’t evaluate or grade, my students won’t do.

Yeah, I hear that a lot.  The point these teachers were making was, if we don’t give credit for blogging, contributing to the class wiki, or creating an animoto, our students won’t do it.  I feel their pain.  I can’t help but think that much of this behavior stems from conditioning.  We’ve trained our students (in our assessment-crazed, high-stakes testing world) to think in these terms.  Intrinsic motivation seems to have left the building. But I don’t think that’s due to any character flaw in our students – I think that “we” have set it up this way (I was talking to a friend yesterday, who relayed the story that her kindergartner came home with homework on which “points” would be given by the teacher).  But even if we agree on that, what’s to be done about it?  By the time teenagers get to high school (or college) they are steeped in that tradition.  What’s an individual teacher to do, in order to break the cycle?   I would love to hear your thoughts on that – comments?  ideas?


A Different Kind of Educator’s Workshop

Spiral Theas and Chimera Cosmos

Spiral Theas and Chimera Cosmos

A friend and colleague of mine, Liz Dorland and I decided to organize a Second Life Eduator’s group.  We kept meeting these fabulous teachers who wanted to learn  more about the application of the virtual world to education and so, we thought, what the heck – let’s set up a workshop series for these teachers. We’ll meet for just an hour – two times per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for four weeks, as an experiment.  We can show them beginning navigational stuff, introduce them to basic building skills, and take them to other educational builds, favorites of ours, for inspiration.

For those of you unfamiliar with Second Life – it is an online virtual world that consists of a flat-earth simulation of roughly 1.8 billion square meters (if it were a physical place, it would be about the size of Houston, Texas). First launched in 2003, SL is an example of an immersive, three-dimensional (3D) environment that supports a high level of social networking and interaction with information.  Visitors can access the virtual world through a free, client program called the Second Life viewer. You enter the SL virtual world, which residents refer to as “the grid”, as an avatar (Second Life “users” are referred to as “residents”). Once there, you can explore environments, meet and socialize with other residents (using voice and text chat), participate in group and individual activities, and learn from designed experiences. Built into the software is a three-dimensional modeling tool, based around simple geometric shapes, that allows anyone to build virtual objects. These objects can be used, in combination with a scripting language, to add functionality.

While virtual worlds with their 3D landscapes and customizable avatars, seem similar to popular massively multiplayer online games, they do not adhere to the traditional definition of a game.  Virtual worlds, like SL, are more focused on socializing, exploring, and building.  As a result, there is an active educational community in SL. Over 300 colleges and universities have “builds” in SL where they teach courses and conduct research. A number of organizations (NASA, NOAA, NIH, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Public Radio), along with a host of government agencies, museums, and educational groups stage regular events, seminars and workshops in world.

Since I started exploring around in Second Life last year, it’s seemed to me to be a great way to involve students in science.  But before we can think about the applications with students, I knew we needed to get teachers in there.  So, Liz and I thought we’d start with these simple workshops.

Comicbook-Style Handouts, designed by Liz Dorland

Comicbook-Style Handouts, designed by Liz Dorland

What sounded like a relatively simple (and fun idea!) has turned out to be quite a bit of work – but it’s also even more fun that I would have imagined. First of all, it gives Liz and I an iron-clad excuse to investigate lots of interesting places and activities we’ve been wanting to learn about any way.  It’s also forced us to be more systematic about understanding the basics of getting around in Second Life (as always, you learn the most when you are going to teach). We’ve created handouts and step-by-step instructions for the participants. Then, of course, we needed an online place to store and display all of those, as well as a place to keep the schedule – so we built a wiki site for the group.  And then we wanted to document the sessions – so we started a Koin-Up group where everyone in the class can post photos.  Now, I’m experimenting with recording options so that we can archive the sessions.

This week, we had our first session.  13 teachers showed up (there will be 17 when everyone attends) and they’re from all over – Great Britain, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, and Boston.  Some teach college students, some are curriculum developers, some teach primary years, and some secondary grades.  Men and women – older and younger – some experienced in SL and some brand spankin’ new.  I love the diversity.

Teachers in our Second Life "Skybox' Classroom

Teachers in our Second Life "Skybox' Classroom

We started with some basic navigational stuff (creating landmarks, map reading, inventory) and then we teleported up to our skybox classroom.  Everyone learned how to “buy” a chair, find it in their inventory, and then rez it on their spot on the classroom floor.  Then we had a little lesson in camera controls, learning how to zoom in/out and focus.

Chichenitza – view from the top (taken by Kirsten Loza)

After that. we teleported down to the ground and then bounced over to Chichenitza for a bit of fun.  Everyone picked up the free Mayan costume and then climbed the magnificent stairs to take in the view from the top.

I was very impressed with how well everyone did.  They seemed to follow along beautifully and were patient with the various technical hassles one inevitably has with a platform like this.  For Liz and me, it was great fun and a welcome challenge (that’s us, up there in the photo at the top of the post – I’m the one with the  yellow hardhat).  We work well together – trading off the various responsibilities, and supporting each other (I would never do this by myself!).  When one is leading the class, the other is adding helpful explanations to the backchat, taking snapshots, and giving extra support to those who need it.

Next week we’ll be visiting Yifeng Hu’s Department of Communications Studies virtual location.  Yifeng Hu is an instructor at The College of New Jersey (in Ewing, NJ) where she teaches a course called ‘New Media and Health Communications’.  As part of her course, Professor Hu take students into Second Life for activities, lectures, and touring. We’re going to visit her virtual campus and hear how she uses the virtual world with her students.  They’ve used their time in Second Life to, among other things, examine whether the communications theories they learn about in class are applicable in the virtual world. Here is an article about Professor Hu’s work.  We also hope to visit Michael Demers virtual classroom.  Dr. Demers teaches geology at New Mexico State University and has done some really interesting things (including how to use GIS equipment) with his students in the virtual world. Here’s an article about his experiences.

All in all, this is turning out to be a worthwhile experiment.  I’m learning so much from our “students” and seeing my way toward a path to make this work for students.  If anyone is interested in joining us, in world, drop me a line!


Using QR Codes in the Classroom

QR code billboard in Japan

QR code billboard in Japan

Raise your hand if you know what that funny looking black and white tatoo is.  That is a QR code. What, you may well ask, are QR codes?  QR = Quick Response.  A bit of an unknown here in the U.S., but they are all over Japan (and have been for years) and are starting to make headway in Europe.

Think of them as fancy, 2D bar codes.  First introduced in 1994, these are matrix codes that, when scanned, redirect you to whatever digital information has been encoded there (urls, whatever).  They are a very efficient and reliable way to provide a url in non-networked situation – e.g on paper, on a billboard, on a painted surface – anywhere.  A QR code can hold a lot of information  - up  to 4,000 characters.  Even a simple jpeg can be scanned into a QR code, faxed, and then read at the other end.

But how are these QR codes read?  With any one of a number of free QR code readers – free apps that can be downloaded to a cell phone.  In fact, most new cell phones come already pre-loaded with QR code readers.  Once you have the reader, you just aim the phone’s camera at the QR code, the camera registers the data, and redirects you to whatever information was programmed into the code.  If it was a url, your phone will kick start the browser and take you to the desired web site. Bee Tag is the reader that I use, and i-nigma is a very popular one. Here’s a very simple, short video, showing you how it’s done.

And how do you generate these QR codes?  With any one of a number of free QR code generation sites.  Like Kaywa orQRStuff.   You just enter the url (or other data) you want to encode and the site spawns a printable QR code for you. Voila!

A QR code embedded with my contact information.

A QR code embedded with my contact information.

Here’s what QR codes look like.  This one, by the way, is embedded with all of my contact information, the url for this blog, my skype and twitter IDs.  I use it on my business card.

Clever uses of QR codes (Creative Commons)

So, how might they be used in teaching?  At the simplest level, you could include them in a printed worksheet (for homework or on an exam).  Another idea would be to use small QR code labels in a lab – print them on ready-to-peel labels or tape them onto basic lab equipment (microscopes, glassware, sensors, binoculars, cabinets or drawers). The codes would would lead students to teaching videos or amplified safety information. QR codes printed on labels could be applied to bones or preserved specimens to lead students to further information or investigation.  Perhaps you could assign students the project of creating these QR codes for your lab supplies and equipment? Another possibility might be to use QR codes in an assessment – they go to the pre-determined site, watch a video or an animation, then answer questions about it. Use them for orienteering in an outdoor education course or on a field trip.  The QR codes could connect to maps or destinations on Google Earth. Have students create their own QR codes that they submit as an assignment. Maybe a “get-to-know-the-lab” scavenger hunt at the beginning of the year? Maybe have them printed on t-shirts as end of the year prizes?  Put them on business cards, luggage tags or make temporary tatoos out of them!  Just for fun, check out this video of a summer project, sponsored by a Japanese company to make a dramatically scaled QR code, out of sand.

What ideas do you have for using QR codes?



Well here it is, almost November.  In my ‘neck-of-the-woods’  (by the way, where did that expression come from?)  Fall is waning, the winds are blowing and the snows of Colorado are threatening.  But this year the month of November brings some special meaning to me  (and to most biologists.)  It is the month in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin Of Species.  So much has been written and broadcast this year about Darwin and On The  Origin Of Species and evolution itself that maybe the topic has saturated our heads and our classrooms, I hope not!   In Northern Ohio we recently had a “birthday party” for the ‘Origin’ publication.  The Cleveland Regional Association of Biologist (CRABs) hosted a birthday party with a great cake and party favors and even a one hour talk about Darwin –the Man and His Science (of course the one hour talk lasted a bit more than 90 minutes, but that is typical of the speaker.)  As a take-home present for all that attended I created an interactive Origin Calendar.  It started on October 24th and had one activity for each day until November 24th (the official day of publication of On the Origin Of Species — November 24, 1859.)  (Actually the book was shown and sold out –1250 copies–on November 22, 1859.)  The Calendar can be used by anyone that travels to the CRABs web site at  The activities come from all over the Web.  ENSI/SENSI, PBS Evolution Site, Evolution.Berkely.Edu, etc……  The calendar on the site is interactive and clicking on a day will take you to a web activity.  You can also download an interactive PDF file of it from this site.

Here it is:

CRABs 'Origin" Calendar

CRABs 'Origin" Calendar

Use it well and use it often.



Sounds Downunder

Around the World in 80 Blogs

We know as biology teachers that the entire world is our classroom –or should be.  The Internet certainly makes that easier then it was when I started to teach.  We have been “talking” about using Internet resources to make our teaching more personal, more interactive, more current.  Here is a way to open up the other side of the world to your students–>  Read a blog that is posted by an Australian biology teacher.  My best friend is a biologist in Melbourne, Australia (or as he says–Oz.)  07 Eastern Grey KangarooOver the past few years as I started to post my observations and exploits on my own Biology Teacher Blog ( my friend Stewart Monckton started to put together some ideas for a blog of his own.  Well, it is live now and I find it fascinating.  I love to see the biology around my own world as I walk, drive, bike or paddle around.  Now I can “see” and “hear” and learn about the biology around the environs of Melbourne, Australia.  I find that writing a blog entry makes me see better, hear better, and learn more about my environment.  When I read Stewart’s blog I find that his entries and my responses are making me see more of the world, hear more of the world and of course, learn more about the biology in other parts of the world.  Last week he described a recent trip to an area called The Grampions west of Melbourne–or as Stewart says–> “The Grampians sit West and North of Melbourne. A four hour journey by car, longer with kids, an eternity if they are bored, restless and fractious. Luckily eternity does not beckon.”  Here is a comment that his recent entry elicited from me–>kookaburra
Benz said…

Another delightful “hike.” We often ignore sounds around us just to keep ‘peace of mind’ I suppose. Where I live I can alternately listen to a pileated woodpecker (had to mention that since you brought up your Crimson Rosella,) a noisy titmouse looking for peanuts in the mix of feeder fodder I put out, a helicopter flying overhead going from highway to hospital, and the background of long distance motor trucks on the highways obscured by the trees and forests. But my ear and mind seem to filter the wanted sounds from the unwanted ones. I can go out on my deck and listen to the rustling of leaves as the small herd of white-tail deer browse my trees and shrubs. I can concentrate on the dropping of acorns and the tapping of the hairy and downy woodpeckers–and ignore the cars and planes and school busses (this is a little easier since I retired from the classroom.) Just last Wednesday I led a night hike at a nearby Environmental Learning Center. The night was pretty overcast, therefore fairly dark. Rain was in the air, but the air was still. As we walked down the starting trail we were forced to ignore the distant highway, and were rewarded for it. A lone Great Horned Owl was making his presence known. Wait, there was an answer. Or maybe just an echo. At any rate, we ignored the highway and enjoyed the owl–our choice, our joy. RB

As you can see, he makes me think.  Stewart has asked if other biologist are interested in learning about his own environment.  I said “You bet they are!”  So here it is–

Check it out.  Learn about the environments on the other side of the world.  Oz is a fascinating place.  When you read about the wildlife, remember, they are on the “other side ” of the Wallace Line (see

Rich Benz (and friend)

Rich Benz (and friend)


Screenshots: How to Make Them and Use Them

Do you know how to take a picture of whatever is happening on your computer screen (known as a “screenshot”) and then play around with it and fancy it up?  If you do, you can find another post on this bio blog to read.  If you don’t — read on!

A screenshot (of this screen!).

A screenshot (of this screen!).

Taking a screenshot (and then adding to it) can be a very, very useful thing to know how to do. For instance, you might want to highlight a few key elements of the shot, draw an arrow to point out a particular event happening, write an explanatory call-out in your own words, or layer an additional image on top of the screen shot.

I use screen shots primarily to give people directions. For example, I use them to provide step-by-step instructions on how to edit a wiki or how to use an online bookmarking site.  Using screenshots to illustrate directions for students can be very helpful, but it’s even better if you can annotate and draw on them.  You can also use screenshots as a way to determine whether or not a student has completed an online assignment.  For example, if you ask your students to complete an online activity for homework, ask them to email you a screenshot of the finished activity.  There’s only one way they can get that.

So, just to review how to take a screenshot on your computer.  If you’re on a PC, you just press the “Printscreen” (typically labeled “PrtScn”) button. That will save the image on your computer’s clipboard so that you can then paste it into any editing software.  If you’re on a Mac, you have your choice – if you just want a shot of the whole screen, it’s “apple/shift/3″ if you want to decide which segment of the screen to take a picture of, it’s “apple/shift/4″.  That last keyboard combination on a mac turns your cursor into a cross-hair and you can click and drag to the exact dimension of your preferred shot.  In either case, the image gets saved to your desktop. If you add space bar to that last keyboard combo, your mouse becomes a camera and you can move it to whatever application you want to take a picture of.  Add “control” to either of the two keyboard combo and you save the image to your clipboard, instead of saving the image as a file to your desktop. (gotta love it)

Now, here a few free tools to help you with the fancy-ing-it-up part:

1.  Jing. This handy little free app works with both PC and Mac and it can not only snap a picture of your screen but you can record short videos of on-screen action as well.  You just download it and the icon sits on your desktop, to be used whenever.  You can save your images/videos to your computer or you can take advantage of Jing’s ability to host your shots on their server and spawn links to your created items.

2.  Evernote.  This one is really a powerful tool and can be used for much more than just screen shots.  It’s really an uber note-taking device – a way to clip, store and organize all your various notes, lists, and ideas in one, handy online place.  So you can type yourself text notes, clip a web page, snap a photo, or grab a screenshot. Definitely worth checking out.

3.  Irfanview.  This is a PC-only, free tool that’s quite powerful.  You can certainly do screenshots with it but it also has an image editor so you can resize, add call-outs, arrows, whatever.

4.  ScreenDash.  With this one you can capture images from your screen, a webcam or an iphone.  You can draw on the captured images, enhance them, add clip-art, change sizes.  LIke Jing, ScreenDash will save your images on their server and spawn a link for you as well.  Free and very easy to use.

5. FireShot.  This is an add-on for use with the Firefox browser so youll only be interested in this one if you regularly use Firefox AND if you have a PC (since this little baby is not available for MacOSX).  This little plugin provides a sert of editing and annotations tools that can be saved to your hard drive or uploaded to a public server.

6.  Grab.  If you’re on a Mac, you already have this one (in the Utilities folder).  Very spiffy.  You just tell it what kind of a capture you want to do (selection, window, screen, timed screen).  With this one you can include a cursor or a pull-down menu in your shot.

So, now that you know how to take and augment screenshots – what are some of your ideas for using them?


Clever Use of VoiceThread

Exam analysis using VoiceThread.

Exam analysis using VoiceThread.

My friend, Tod Duncan (UC Denver) just sent this VoiceThread link to me.  It will take you to a Voicethread that he created to review the results of a recent exam given in his introductory biology course.  There’s a lot to love about this.

First off, I appreciate the tone of he takes in the recording.  A friendly, casual, companionable, let’s-you-and-I-just-talk-this-through sort of tone.  That’s bound to put the students at ease. I really like the way he subtley reinforces good test-taking strategies, like thinking through the way to eliminate impossible or unlikely choices in a multiple choice exam.

It also strikes me that reviewing an exam this way would be extremely efficient.  Rather than go over the test individually with students during office hours, one by one by one, students can link to this VoiceThread and listen to it.  And they can listen as many times as they need to.  He could also use this with future students, as a test preparation tool.  It’s unlikely Tod will use the same exam questions next time around, but hearing their instructor’s analysis of past assessment items will help them prepare for new ones.  Tod just posted this so, right now, there are no student comments embedded, but using the comment feature in VoiceThread, students could post further questions or requests for clarification to Tod or to their fellow students and get a conversation started.  Very nice.


E-Rate Funding to Re-Imagine Schools

Meet Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. Lehmann is a interesting guy – he started out as a High School English teacher and technology coordinator.  Over the years, his abiding interest in and thoughtful blog (Practical Theory:  A View From the Classroom) about new technologies applied to teaching and learning has put him in the national spotlight.  On 8.20.09 he gave a talk at the FCC National Broadband Planning Workshop in Washington, DC.   The blog entry I’ve linked you to includes the ustream video of his talk as well as his notes.

I found his talk inspiring. I particularly appreciated his very well articulated point, that if all we do with new broadband technologies is find a more efficient way to deliver content, we are missing the boat. What do you think?

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,


animotoHere’s a web 2.0 tool that could bring some fun into your classroom.  Animoto is an online music-video creation application.  Go to their site, sign up (it’s free), and you can create a short (30 second) music video, using your own digital photos and a song from the animoto library, that can be emailed, downloaded, linked to, or embedded in a web site.

Right now they have a mother’s day special going on.  The animoto creation you make is sent inside a lovely flash-based mother’s day graphic (hard to explain, but it’s pretty). I just put an animoto together for my mom (who, at 70 years old, has completely immersed herself in email and the web – go MOM!) and it was a lot of fun.  Once I found the digital photos I wanted, it only took me about 15 minutes to put it together.  It’s a way to send something nice to your Mom while brushing up on your web 2.0 skills.

Animoto would be a useful tool to consider for student projects (maybe a fun end-of-the-year sort of thing?).  It’s good for setting a mood and giving a content “impression”.  Not so good for presenting a complex topic or a linear progression.  Here are a few biology animotos that might be fun to create… a series of biodiversity animotos?  Or an animoto for each biome?  Animotos of a local nature area?  Student pets?  Gardens?  Your classroom?  Would love to hear your ideas and see what you create.

Here’s a link to one that I put together on Charles Darwin.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools,Videos | Tags:

Word Cloud 101

Here is a really fast, really easy, really handy web tool. is a web application that can be used in any class for lots of student interest generation. The application is really simple–> go to the web site–, select “Create”  type or paste a text selection.  I tend to copy and paste text that I am trying to highlight or call attention to (notice the Word Cloud in this posting.) picture-11 Then hit “Go” and Wordle creates a Word Cloud of the words you pasted-in or typed in.  You can customize the look of the Word Cloud, or you can have Wordle create a random look. You are almost finished now.  If you like what you (or Wordle,) has created then you can post it in Wordle’s Gallery, or you can capture the image that is created.  I tend to capture the Word Cloud and save it as a jpg image on my desktop. Once I save the Word cloud I can paste it anywhere I want to. Now here is where this discussion becomes interesting…..

What can you do with a Word Cloud?

Think about it.

  • Give a reading assignment and when your students come in the next day hand out a Word Cloud of the section’s intro.  Or create one with the key terms from the reading.
  • Create a Word Cloud of the key concepts from a new unit as an introduction.
  • How about using a Word Cloud as a unit review?
  • Create a Word Cloud as a preview of what your students will see on an upcoming field trip.
  • Assign students to create a Word Cloud that represents a laboratory they just completed.
  • Or …………….  Let us know what you can think of.  Add a comment with your great ideas for using  Word Clouds in your classes.